University Makes Wildflower Meadows to Boost Biodiversity

St Andrews in Scotland is converting lawns to attract pollinators.

St Andrews university

JByard/Getty Images

St Andrews University in Scotland is considered, in a number of ways, to be at the forefront of environmental sustainability. Now the institution is boosting biodiversity by managing grassland to create wildflower meadows. 

In 2005, it was one of the first universities to establish a truly interdisciplinary Sustainable Development program. In 2017, it opened its own biomass plant to source energy responsibly. In 2019, it put a socially responsible investment policy for all university funds in place. A year later, it launched a hands-on education in practical sustainability for all new students, and an Environmental Sustainability Board to lead the school's response to climate and environmental change. The university aims to be Net Zero by 2035

Biodiversity goals are crucial to these aims. By March 2022, St Andrews plans to manage 10% of its open space for wildlife. By 2035, the goal is to manage at least 60% of university-owned land for biodiversity. 

A Biodiversity Working Group, formed in 2019 and made up of staff, academics, students, and external experts from organizations like the town's Botanical Garden, works on biodiversity improvements through survey, monitoring, habitat management and planting, research, teaching, communication, and engagement.

A number of projects have been initiated around the university and town. Five hundred trees have been planted since the "Green Corridors" project was initiated in 2020. This is a collaboration between the school, St Andrews Botanic Garden, Fife Council, the local authority, and BugLife. And now, the university is also putting a transformational grassland management program into effect—and will manage around eight hectares of previously close-mown grassland as meadow habitat. 

St Andrews University wildflower meadow
St Andrews staff inspect wildflower meadow in July 2021.

St Andrews University

Urban Meadows for Pollinators

The Urban Meadows for Pollinators Project is being carried out by the university in collaboration with Fife Council, St. Andrews Botanic Garden, the Fife Coast and Countryside Trust, and Crail Community Partnership. The grassland includes university land, council-owned property, and green spaces in the coastal village of Crail, just around the coast from St Andrews. 

John Reid, the university's Grounds Manager said, "The project will see a transformational change in land management, increasing biodiversity and sustainability and links in with the university's aspirations to achieve Net Zero and manage a substantial proportion of land for biodiversity by 2035."

Donald Steven, Grounds Foreman, added, "Diversifying our open spaces will create rich, attractive places for people and wildlife to enjoy."

To improve soil fertility and allow a wider of species to thrive, mowing frequently will be reduced—from 10 to 20 times a year to just two or three. Grass clippings from these areas will be removed. A cut and collect mower has been purchased to enable this management, some of the funds for which came from a grant of £139,677 (approx. US$193,000) from the NatureScot Biodiversity Challenge Fund.

St Andrews Gateway meadow
St Andrews Gateway meadow in August 2021.

St Andrews University

Treehugger reached out to find out how the team would manage the grass mowings collected from these meadow sites and received the following response:

"Since the start of the Meadows project, we have put in place more compost heaps near our sites where we can send out grass cuttings from the cut and collect mower. This reduces the distance the waste has to travel and cost of having to send it off-site. The compost will be of great value for areas around the university as a mulch, which will add more nutrients to the soil and suppress weeds."

We also asked the university's policy on weedkillers and how their use would tie in with biodiversity efforts. The spokesperson said,

"The university grounds team has been actively reducing the use of weedkillers which includes moving away from glyphosate. Areas across the campus are zoned to include weedkiller-free wildlife sites, and the use of general weedkillers around tree roots and paths has been much reduced or eliminated. Mechanical methods and selective weedkillers are still used on sports pitches but this is an annual cycle rather than more regular application."

Treehugger spoke to several locals, who gave their own thoughts on the meadow project. 

"I like seeing more wildlife around," said one local woman. "My kids get to see nature rather than just some boring grass."

A student at the University, taking a walk past one of the sites being developed told Treehugger, "This project has a way to go yet, but the signs are promising. I think there have already been more butterflies around."

Another student said, "The university still has a lot of work to do to meet the environmental targets and I am not saying that they have everything right, but it is certainly heading in the right direction. Projects like this are just one more reason why this is such a great place to study and live." (St Andrews came top in the UK for student academic experience this year in a poll, and student satisfaction in all regards is consistently high.)

The project will take time and careful management to allow diverse wildflowers to thrive. But all agree that this is a great step for pollinating insects, birds like swallows and goldfinches, and mammals like bats and hedgehogs. And that it will enrich the environment for human residents, too. 

"We have done phase one surveys, counting the number of invertebrates found at some of the meadow locations and will continue to do so throughout the project. Already we are seeing a big change in the number of plant species from reducing the number of cuts," said one of the Botanic Garden team members involved with the project.

"It’s been wonderful working alongside the meadows seeing the burst of colour and beauty in the summer," the team member added. "It is instantly noticeable the major increase in biodiversity. What is also exciting is seeing how people are engaging with the meadows, appreciating them as a space, and connecting themselves to nature."